November 06, 2017

National Security Task Force Statement on President’s Trip to Asia

House Democratic Caucus National Security Task Force Statement on President’s Upcoming Trip to Asia

Washington, D.C. - The co-chairs of the Democratic Caucus’ National Security Task Force — Congressman Seth Moulton (MA) Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy (FL), and Congressman Jimmy Panetta (CA) — issued the following statement on the President’s upcoming trip to Asia, which will take place from November 3rd to November 14th and will include stops in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Hawaii.

“As co-chairs of the House Democratic Caucus’ National Security Task Force, we hope the President will use his forthcoming trip to Asia to demonstrate the United States’ ironclad commitment to security, stability and economic prosperity in the region, sending a clear signal of steadfastness to ally and adversary alike.  We note that, nine months into office, the President has yet to nominate individuals to key positions with responsibility for U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific, including the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and the U.S. ambassador to South Korea.  We urge the President to swiftly address this self-inflicted wound.

“We suspect that the subject of North Korea will dominate the agenda, given the stakes involved.  We recently led a letter—signed by 65 of our colleagues—calling on the President to adopt a ‘strong, strategic and steady’ policy toward Pyongyang.  On the eve of the President’s trip to the region, we reiterate our appeal.  While we recognize that North Korea’s dangerous actions are the root cause of current tensions, we also believe that the President’s reckless rhetoric and muddled messages to allies have made the problem worse.  We urge the President to chart a careful course that avoids capitulation to, or catastrophic war with, North Korea. A successful strategy should be built on five pillars:  increasing economic pressure on North Korea through the imposition and vigorous enforcement of sanctions; enhancing crisis-management channels with North Korea to clarify intentions and minimize the risk of miscalculation; strengthening, rather than subverting, our alliances with South Korea, Japan and other regional partners; filling key vacancies at the Department of State and the Department of Defense; and continuing to make clear to North Korea that an attack on the U.S. or our allies will produce unacceptable consequences for the North Korean regime.

“This trip provides an opportunity for the President to repair any damage to our alliance with South Korea caused by the President’s bellicose statements that do not sufficiently recognize the catastrophic risks that military conflict would pose for South Korea, his suggestion that the U.S. might withdraw from the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement, and by his tweet accusing South Korea’s president of ‘appeasement.’ We hope the President will make an unequivocal expression of solidarity with South Korea, with whom the United States shares a bond built in battle and shaped by shared sacrifice.

“Finally, we are concerned by reports that the President intends to skip the East Asia Summit, an annual meeting of heads of state.  We believe the President’s participation in the Summit would send a valuable signal regarding the United States’ continued commitment to, and leadership in, this critically-important region.  The failure of the President to attend risks unravelling the goodwill that his trip is designed to build, and leaves the door open for our competitors in the region to build consensus on issues during the Summit that may run counter to U.S. interests.”

The Task Force-led letter to the President regarding North Korea, dated October 3, 2017, is reproduced below:


Dear Mr. President,

We write to urge you to adopt a strong, strategic and steady policy toward North Korea, whose rapidly advancing nuclear and missile capabilities threaten the United States and our allies.

We acknowledge two fundamental points. First, North Korea’s dangerous and destabilizing actions, in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions dating back to 2006, are the root cause of tensions between North Korea and the international community. Nevertheless, we believe your rhetoric in response has been counterproductive, escalating an already-dangerous situation. Second, while North Korea has been described as “the land of lousy options,” we believe the U.S. can maximize the chance of success by charting a careful course that avoids capitulation to, or catastrophic war with, North Korea.

In our view, U.S. strategy toward North Korea should be guided by the following principles.

  • Increase Economic Pressure on North Korea Through the Imposition and Effective Enforcement of Sanctions

U.S. and international economic sanctions on North Korea should be calibrated to make it harder for North Korea to import the technology and acquire the hard currency necessary to advance its nuclear and missile programs. They should also be tailored to produce sufficient economic hardship, particularly among the regime’s elites, to cause Kim Jong-un to conclude that the cost of these programs outweigh their benefit and—accordingly—to choose negotiation over aggression. While U.S. and U.N. sanctions were recently strengthened, we believe there is room for more serious and sustained economic pressure on North Korea in an effort to change its strategic calculus.

While multilateral agreement to impose sanctions requires a significant diplomatic commitment, effective enforcement of sanctions involves even more time and resources. Far more should be done to ensure that other nations, including but not limited to China, are fulfilling their legal obligations. If a country has the will but not the ability to enforce sanctions against North Korea, the U.S. should offer technical or financial assistance. Conversely, if a country possesses the capacity but not the desire to implement sanctions, American officials should make clear to that country that it risks a fundamental breach in our bilateral relationship. The U.S. intelligence community, the Department of the Treasury, and the Department of State should monitor, address and—where appropriate—penalize non-compliance in accordance with U.S. sanctions law.

  • Enhance U.S. Diplomatic Efforts, Especially Crisis Management Channels 

Tough, principled diplomacy with North Korea is not a concession or sign of weakness. President Reagan negotiated with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Whether North Korea is prepared to negotiate an enduring and verifiable suspension of its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for sanctions relief is up to Pyongyang.  But the United States should always be ready and willing to talk without preconditions.

In the interim, the U.S. must establish effective crisis-management channels with North Korea to clarify intentions and minimize the risk of miscalculation.  When the U.S. communicates clearly and consistently to an adversary, it makes it less likely that the adversary will intentionally or inadvertently begin a conflict.

  • Strengthen, Don’t Subvert, Alliances in East Asia

At his confirmation hearing, Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated: “History is clear: nations with strong allies thrive and those without them wither.” We are concerned that U.S. alliances in East Asia, particularly our security and economic partnership with South Korea, are being mismanaged. After North Korea’s latest nuclear test, we were discouraged to see you accuse South Korean President Moon of “appeasement” toward North Korea, a claim as untrue as it is unhelpful.

Furthermore, while we have a range of views on the 2012 U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, we believe that now is the wrong time for the administration to engage in loose talk about unilateral withdrawal from the agreement. Kim Jong-un seeks to undermine the relationship between the U.S. and South Korea and to cause South Korea to question the credibility of our commitments. We should stand steadfast with our allies, not further Kim’s efforts to divide us.

  • Recognize that Personnel is Policy

We are disappointed that, eight months into your tenure, key policymakers needed to craft and carry out U.S. strategy in East Asia are not in place.  At the Department of State, you have yet to nominate an individual to serve as Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, or Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security. At the Department of Defense, you have not nominated an individual to serve as Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs or appointed an individual to serve as Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asia. These are self-inflicted wounds. We urge you to swiftly nominate or name qualified individuals to these critical positions.

  • Maintain Deterrence and Defense

For nearly 65 years, U.S. leadership, military presence, and engagement with allies has prevented another devastating conflict on the Korean peninsula. While Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il, and now Kim Jong-un have acted aggressively, each has concluded that a direct attack on the U.S. or our allies would produce unacceptable consequences for the regime. The U.S. must continue to impart this message to North Korea through a variety of means, including by enhancing defensive systems and bolstering defense cooperation and intelligence sharing with South Korea and Japan.

Rather than using reckless rhetoric and sending muddled messages to our allies, the U.S. should pursue a comprehensive strategy toward North Korea that consists of economic pressure, strong and steady diplomacy, and credible deterrence and defense.


The Democratic Caucus National Security Task Force was established in June 2017 by the House Democratic Caucus to support the creation, execution, and public messaging of national security policies that are smart, strategic, and strong.